There is a popular saying, “Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance”. This oft-quoted statement might sound lofty and uplifting, but, alas, it is patently false. As experience of the 20th century politics demonstrates well, it is quite possible to organise a state in a way that precludes the existence of any visible resistance – at least, for a long, long time.
A good example of such a resistance-less regime is the Soviet Union at the height of Joseph Stalin’s rule, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. While the government was highly repressive and executed about one million real and alleged political criminals (not including the many who perished in prison camps), the Soviet Union of this period saw no organised resistance to speak of – the uprising of the national minorities on the distant periphery was the only exception. Many were unhappy, but they were seldom willing to express their hostile attitude to the state.
The same is applicable to North Korea. It might be the only country in the modern world in which there is no domestic political opposition whatsoever. Not a single dissenter, let alone an opposition group, is known to exist inside North Korea – even though quite discontent seems to be on the rise in recent years.
How did the hereditary dictatorship of the Kim family, in control since early 1946, manage to achieve this? How do they keep their people so passive and so obedient? It is often assumed that the main reason for this obedience is the relentless application of political terror, ie the government’s ability (and willingness) to imprison, torture and/or shoot every and any opponent of the regime. Things are not that simple, however.
There is little doubt that political terror plays a significant role in maintaining the internal political stability of the Kim dynasty. North Korea has the highest ratio of political prisoners. Around 80,000-100,000 North Koreans are incarcerated for political crimes. The number of political prisoners as a proportion of the population is roughly similar to that of the Soviet Union in the twilight of Stalin’s rule – and well above the level we can see in any other modern dictatorship.
In a sense, the North Korean approach to thought policing is reminiscent of the zero-tolerance crime fighting policy of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani insisted that in order to prevent serious crimes, the police had to fight minor crimes too.
However, terror alone does not explain the remarkable staying power of the regime in Pyongyang. The presence and role of daily surveillance must not be underestimated. North Koreans have good reason to believe that even a minor deviation from the officially approved political line will be noticed and punished by the authorities. Punishment, like the misdemeanour itself, might be quite mild. However, it is the ubiquity of surveillance which is important.
In a sense, the North Korean approach to thought policing is reminiscent of the zero-tolerance crime fighting policy of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani insisted that in order to prevent serious crimes, the police had to fight minor crimes too. Giuliani believed that a broken window is the first sign of emerging problems, so vandalism and other petty crimes should be exterminated before these activities create a fertile ground for greater deviation. In their efforts to maintain obedience and instill fear, the North Korean authorities take the same approach – of course, they care about political dissent, not common crimes.
Ramped up neighbourhood watches
Perhaps, one should first mention the neighbourhood watch groups, known as the inminban (literally, people’s group). Each inminban consists of 15-30 families living side-by-side in a village, urban block, or multi-story building. Such a group is headed by a junior official, whose task is to look for all suspicious activities within her (this is always a woman’s job) jurisdiction. She is also charged with the registration of overnight visitors because one cannot stay overnight even with friends or relatives without giving prior notice to the authorities. The official is required to have intimate knowledge of all families under her jurisdictions: their occupation, income level, family relations and even work routine. At their briefings with police, the inminban heads have always been reminded that they should know “how many chopsticks are in any given household” – and this oft-repeated sentence is not a joke.
Another responsibility of the “people’s group” and its head is to ensure that no forbidden items are kept in private houses. The list of such items includes, above all, tunable radio sets and DVDs of South Korean as well as some Western movies.
To ensure that nothing improper happens, the head of the “people’s group”, together with the police, is required to make random midnight checks of every household from time to time. The frequency of such searches varies greatly, but typically, every North Korean house is searched 2-4 times a year (nobody bothers with such legal niceties as a search warrant). They look for forbidden items, but also for people who stay overnight on the premises without prior registration. Their usual catch are visiting relatives from the countryside, but sometimes an unlucky couple of lovers can be apprehended as well. This is not a trivial matter, since the couple’s employers are notified about the transgression, and a humiliating public criticism session is likely to ensue (and North Korea, as a patriarchal country, does not look at extramarital sex for women with any lenience).
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Another important institution is “organisational life”. Every adult North Korean is a member of some “organisation” in his/her workplace. Exactly to which group one belongs depends of his/her age, gender and perceived loyalty towards the regime. There are strict and clear rules defining one’s affiliations. To simplify things a bit, North Korea youngsters below the age of 30 belong to the Youth League, the chosen few are party members, while the vast majority of workers are part of the Trade Union network and for the full-time housewives their organisation is the Women’s Union.
Low-level cells of all these groups are required to arrange ideological education sessions which are normally held two times a week. During these sessions, the participants are lectured on the greatness and virtues of the Kim family, superior qualities of the Korean nation, the bestial nature of the US imperialism and other hostile forces. Attendance is obligatory.
Apart from that, once a week, every North Korean is required to participate in self- and mutual criticism sessions, also arranged by his or her “organisation”. During these sessions he or she is required to publicly admit to misdeeds committed in the previous week. Self-criticism is followed by equally obligatory speeches delivered by fellow co-workers who are required to criticise one another. Once again, this weekly public ritual seldom helps to unmask serious deviations. But it still helps to make sure that most people, being constantly watched by their fellow workers, will follow official prescriptions.
To make the spread of dangerous ideas and forbidden knowledge even more difficult, the government has, for many decades, worked hard to keep people isolated from each other, as well as cut them from uncensored information from overseas. Apart from the aforementioned ban on tunable radios, the North Korean authorities have also banned the Internet completely (only a tiny group of senior officials, foreign trade specialists and intelligence operatives have access to the world wide web). Last, but not least, domestic travel is strictly controlled as well, so any trip outside one’s native region requires prior police permission.
All of this ensures that the average North Korean behave themselves. As the experience of Giuliani demonstrates, a tough approach to a “broken window problem” does work.
Admittedly, the picture described above is increasingly outdated. Over the last 15-20 years, the dramatic growth of the semi-official market economy has changed North Korean life in many regards. Old regulations are no longer enforced as they once were because those who are charged with keeping people in check have little reason to be tough.
Endemic corruption is also important: Nowadays, one can buy his or her way out of trouble. So, the entire surveillance system, once the world’s most formidable, is gradually falling apart. However, for nearly half a century the system worked with remarkable efficiency, ensuring that there was no resistance in North Korea, despite the regime’s remarkable economic and political inefficiency.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.